Stem-Cell Research Stirs Passions On Both Sides of Political Debate

By Laurie McGinley Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

Updated July 9, 2001 12:01 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON — When the leaders of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research began their weekly conference call on June 7, they got bad news.

For months, the alliance, made up of patients’ groups, scientists, medical schools and the biotech industry, had been pressing the Bush administration to support federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Now, Chairman Lawrence Soler was passing on word that President Bush was poised to side with antiabortion activists and announce a ban on the funding. The group promptly issued an urgent alert to its grass-roots supporters, who flooded the White House with so many protest calls that one administration official asked the coalition to call off the dogs.

As it happened, President Bush didn’t make the stem-cell announcement last month. But a decision is due any day now. And the display of passion by the alliance’s supporters showed how the politics of the stem-cell are changing rapidly.

Embryonic stem cells are building-block cells that have the ability to develop into muscle, organ and other types of cells and tissues. Scientists say they hold promise as replacement cells for patients afflicted with degenerative illnesses or injury.

Conventional wisdom once held that President Bush, who campaigned against the government funding, wouldn’t change course and risk the ire of religious conservatives, who complain that extracting stem cells destroys the embryos from which they’re taken. But in recent weeks, polls have shown strong public support for the research and dozens of GOP lawmakers, including some prominent abortion foes, have announced their endorsement. Moreover, research advocates such as the alliance have warned that a ban would spark outrage from people who might benefit from the research, and showed that it’s not just the antiabortion side that feels fervently about the issue.

That has sent some administration officials scurrying to find a middle ground — perhaps by approving funding for research on already extracted cells — on an issue that’s about as amenable to compromise as the Middle East conflict.

“Six months ago, we were just hanging on by a thread,” says Michael Manganillo, vice president for government affairs at the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, a member of the coalition. “Now everyone is talking about it.”

To be sure, the pro-research forces still face long odds in securing the federal funding. President Bush ultimately may be loath to turn his back on his base of antiabortion supporters. And whatever his decision, the battle will move to Congress, where most of the House GOP leadership has vowed to fight the funding.

But, after a slow start earlier in the year, the pro-research forces have picked up surprising momentum. At least part of it is due to the efforts of Mr. Soler, an earnest and somewhat harried 32-year-old who looks 10 years younger.

The chief lobbyist for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International, the driving force behind the coalition, Mr. Soler has all the standard-issue accoutrements of the Washington lobbyist — dark suit, cellphone, cluttered desk. But on his belt, he wears a small device that looks like a pager and provides him with a steady trickle of insulin.

Diagnosed with Type 1, or juvenile diabetes, a decade ago, Mr. Soler for years injected insulin four times a day. He checked his blood sugar frequently, even during lobbying calls on Capitol Hill, before getting an insulin pump two years ago that keeps his blood sugar stable.

Now, he wants a cure, for himself and the other million Americans with juvenile diabetes. Of all the ailments that may be helped by stem-cell research, scientists say, juvenile diabetes is at the top of the list. The outlook is so promising, in fact, that the juvenile-diabetes group funds embryonic stem-cell research itself.

After last year’s election, Mr. Soler decided to form a new group to push the stem-cell issue. Under President Clinton, the National Institutes of Health got approval to fund research on stem cells extracted from frozen embryos left over from fertility treatments. The money was to begin flowing later this year but has been put on hold while the Bush administration reconsiders the issue.

Six months ago, Mr. Soler co-founded the coalition with Tim Leshan, who at time was director of public policy for the American Society for Cell Biology, a scientific group. (He has since taken a job at NIH and is no longer involved in the coalition.) The key, they decided, was a campaign that showcased both scientific expertise and human need.

They signed up groups including the Parkinson’s Action Network, the ALS Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Biotechnology Industry Organization. They began having weekly conference calls to plot strategy. To beef up the coalition’s GOP connections, they hired Vicki Hart, a Republican lobbyist who has long worked for Bob Dole. Separately, Linda Tarplin, a lobbyist for BIO who once worked for current White House lobbyist Nick Calio, also pressed the pro-research case.

The Bush administration is under pressure from scientists to permit federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, and from anti-abortion groups to bar it. It’s exploring a possible compromise that is drawing criticism from both sides:

But the coalition’s biggest asset has been its grass-roots firepower, trained relentlessly on the Bush administration and undecided Republicans in Congress. In recent months, dozens of doctors, researchers and patients have written op-ed pieces for newspapers around the country. Some 70,000 faxes have been sent to members of Congress from research supporters. Patients with everything from spinal-cord injuries to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease, have knocked on congressional doors, pleading for the funding.

In late June, under Mr. Soler’s guidance, 200 children with juvenile diabetes visited Congress. The ostensible reason was to ask for increased funding for diabetes research, but the backdrop was the stem-cell debate. Three-year-old Cody Anderson of West Jordan, Utah, paid a call on Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican who had earlier announced his support of stem-cell research. Afterward, Sen. Hatch mentioned the boy’s visit on national television while arguing in favor of the embryonic stem-cell research. Just before the July Fourth break, the coalition leaders urged their troops to try to call or meet with their member of Congress over the holiday.

All this action has frustrated and angered right-to-life opponents, some of whom remember that the juvenile-diabetes group also pushed hard for fetal-tissue research, which has been a disappointment. Scott Weinberg, a spokesman for the American Life League, an antiabortion group, says the coalition has deliberately played down the importance of recent advances in research involving stem cells derived from adults. He and other abortion foes say adult-stem cell research is the ethical alternative and should be accelerated.

Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, complains that the research advocates insist on referring to the product of conception as “fertilized eggs” rather than human embryos. “That’s plainly inaccurate,” he says.

Coalition officials defend their use of “fertilized egg,” saying it hasn’t yet been implanted in the women’s uterus. In addition, they say that both embryonic and adult stem-cell research should be funded but that they believe embryonic is more promising.

In any case, opponents of the research are looking for ways to counter the emotional impact of ailing patients pleading for research money. Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, and 13 other House members recently wrote to President Bush to ask him to meet with three young children. Hannah, Luke and Mark were created through in-vitro fertilization and kept in storage, as frozen embryos, until they were adopted by infertile couples.

Research opponents hope that the children will drive home the point that in some cases the frozen embryos at fertility clinics are available for adoption. “A decision to authorize the federal funding of human embryo destruction is a decision to deny life” to thousands of children,” the letter says.

Write to Laurie McGinley at